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Fiddler on the Roof (02/26/2004 - 01/08/2006)


 

AP: "Carefully Fiddlin' With Fiddler on the Roof"

It's not easy being a classic work of musical theater.

Revive it exactly as it was first done, and you'll be accused of embalming; change too much and cries of "desecration" fill the air.

Consider "Fiddler on the Roof," one of the last great musicals of Broadway's Golden Age. All of its major New York revivals, including one with original star Zero Mostel, have been unsurprising re-creations of the memorable 1964 production.

That won't do for director David Leveaux, the man who carefully rethought last season's adventurous, Tony Award-winning revival of "Nine." His "Fiddler," while not as radical in concept, manages to shake off the past - with mostly satisfying results. His version opened Thursday at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre.

The big question mark is Alfred Molina as Tevye, the humble Jewish milkman at the center of the show. Mostel's Tevye was big, bright and bold, as colorful as designer Boris Aronson's original Chagall-inspired settings. And the longer Mostel did the role, the larger he got.

Molina delivers a subdued, shtick-free performance, finding his Tevye in shades of gray. That works well later in the show when things get more serious, but it gets the evening off to a questionable start, particularly when Molina, not the strongest of singers, delivers a tentative rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man."

Fortunately, the actor is rescued by the musical's fine book, adapted by Joseph Stein from the stories of Sholom Aleichem. It is a model of concise yet heartfelt storytelling. Set in rural, pre-Revolutionary Russia, the tale of Tevye and his daughters who tear him away, one by one, from deeply held traditions is a universal one. And Molina rises to its big dramatic moments.

One thing Leveaux hasn't tampered with is Jerome Robbins' original choreography, staged here by Jonathan Buttereil. Even after 40 years, it has lost none of its power. In "Tradition," "Fiddler" possesses one of the finest openings of any work of musical theater. The song, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, quickly defines character, time and place, setting up the audience for a sorrowful yet eventually uplifting journey.

And the beautiful score is more than that one song. For those who grew up listening to the original cast recording, hearing each melody is like greeting an old friend. Here, there's a new one, too. Bock and Harnick have supplied a jaunty new number, "Topsy-Turvy," for Yente, the matchmaker, played with appropriate gusto by Nancy Opel.

Leveaux pays particular attention to the sweet, sad moments involving Tevye's family. Each daughter is given her due; so is Tevye's moment alone with his wife, Golde, when he plaintively asks, "Do You Love Me?"

But then the director also is unafraid of a little excess. He has great success with one of the musical's more flamboyant scenes: the dream sequence in which Tevye convinces his wife that their eldest daughter, Tzeitei, should marry the hapless tailor Motel instead of the butcher Lazar Wolf. Strange creatures swirl around the stage while Tevye's daughter and her intended hang suspended in midair above the chaos.

Randy Graff 's Golde is a kinder, less astringent helpmate than Maria Karnilova's original. The three eldest daughters are beautifully sung by Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly and Tricia Paoluccio. Their suitors are a particularly diverse lot, especially John Cariani as a rubber-legged, perpetually twitching Motel.

Designer Tom Pye has placed the village of Anatevka in a large forest of birch trees, lighted by a large moon and twinkling stars -with the orchestra sitting on one side of the stage. The rustic setting is oddly Chekhovian in its beautiful isolation - maybe a little too much for a poor Russian village. No matter. After 40 years, "Fiddler on the Roof" still exerts considerable emotional pull.


AP
02/26/2004

New York Daily News: "Playing on heartstrings"

"Fiddler on the Roof," Broadway's celebration of its musical and ethnic roots, is back - and it's as powerful as ever.

Onstage, the story of Tevye the milkman in a tiny, poverty-stricken town in early-20th-century Russia- a father whose daughters all marry the wrong men -reflects the way a community held together by seemingly timeless rules is being dissolved.

But there's another "Fiddler" at work in the audience's mind. There, the descendants of those tiny towns, who grew up in a world bound by rules, trace their own odyssey into a bewildering world in which there are none.

That accounts for the universal appeal of the 1964 musical with its book by Joseph Stein (based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem), music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, all goaded into greatness by the tyrannical Jerome Robbins.

If the current version, directed by David Leveaux, lacks ethnic flavor, it still reinforces our longing for a comprehensible world irretrievably lost.

Perhaps because the outside world has become even more perplexing, "Fiddler's" sense of affirmation in spite of everything seems even more beguiling.

Alfred Molina, a wonderful comic actor, plays Tevye. He has mastered what might be called "the Yiddish shrug," which conveys more resignation and controlled bitterness than normal shrugs. He has the exasperation of a man constantly thwarted by fate and the women in his life.

What he does not project is the peculiar familiarity that shtetl Jews had with their God. His "If I Were a Rich Man," for example, conveys the ironic humor but not the millennia of sadness and suffering, even anger, that provide the subtext of the character and the show itself.

His gentler presence means some of the other characters come into sharper focus, especially Motel the tailor, to whom John Cariani brings a brilliant (and very Jewish) nervous energy. (He'd also be a great Leo Bloom in "The Producers.")

The night I saw the show, Randy Graff, who plays Tevye's wife, Golde, had vocal problems. But she has a warmth and strength that suit the character perfectly.

Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly and Tricia Paoluccio ail sing beautifully as the daughters, even if they present a suburban, well-scrubbed quality at odds with the shtetl setting.

Robert Petkoff makes an impassioned Perchik. David Ayers and Stephen Lee Anderson are strong as the perhaps all-too-benevolent goyim in this corner of Russia.

Which brings us to Tom Pye's set: beautiful birch trees, which evoke a Russia far prettier than the one in which the Jews were forced to eke out their living.

Leveaux has delineated the character relationships beautifully. The most imaginative element in his rethinking of the material is the Chagall-esque way he has staged Tevye's nightmare, with the lovers suspended in midair and then re-creating the painting in which love carries them aloft.

Musically, this "Fiddler" could not be better, especially the choral numbers that provide so much of its emotional strength.

Jonathan Butterell has used Robbins' dances, though, as in the bottle dance, oddly without the tension in the original.

"Fiddler" was written at a rare moment when Jews felt completely at home in America and the world. Even though this revival has its bland moments, perhaps that's an asset when anti-Semitism has again become increasingly respectable.


New York Daily News
02/27/2004

New York Post: "New 'Fiddler' Out of Tune"

It’s telling that the set design for this revival of one of the world's most beloved musicals consists of little more than a bare stage and row upon row of wan, leafless trees.

Director David Leveaux, in an effort to jettison the show's shtick-laden conventions and get to its heart, has delivered a simpler production shorn of Broadway-style histrionics.

But the results, while not unaffecting, lack passion.

The production has garnered some controversy because of what some see as a lack of Jewish flavor.

While it's true that those aspects are not exactly overemphasized and that more than a few of the leading cast members, including Alfred Molina (Tevye), are not Jewish, the criticism seems misplaced.

But there's no denying that there's something missing at the heart of this production.

Director Leveaux, who scored a triumph with his revival of "Nine," has applied a similarly cerebral approach here, but it's less suited to this material, which demands an outsized sense of demonstrativeness.

Molina, who seemed such a promising prospect to play Tevye, is ironically less vital than his illustrious predecessors. Although he has charisma to burn and a singing voice reasonably up to the demands of the material, his Tevye is subdued and businesslike, hardly the sort who would engage in a constant, boisterous dialogue with God.

While he well conveys the character's deeply conflicted feelings about his daughters' breaks from hallowed tradition, he never manages the larger-than-life quality so necessary to the role. Only in rare moments, such as with his lusty rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man," does he seem to fully embrace the character.

The rest of the cast is similarly competent but unmemorable. Randy Graff is an endearing and feisty Golde, while Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly (soon to be "Mary Poppins" in the upcoming London musical) and Tricia Paoluccio are adorable, if not exactly Semitic, as the elder daughters. Nancy Opel, who came late to the production, is an amusing Yente and also has been assigned the production's new, unmemorable song, "Topsy-Turvy."

Leveaux has wisely retained the legendary original choreography by Jerome Robbins, albeit not without some diminishments.

The staging of the classic "Tevye's Dream" sequence incorporates some nifty flying effects, though one wishes he had retained some of the original's spookiness. His decision to place the orchestra onstage was unfortunate; it is unnecessarily distracting and removes us from the illusion that we're in the small village of Anatevka.

Despite everything, however, "Fiddler" remains a magical experience, full of heart, humor and soul and brimming with songs ("Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Miracle of Miracles") that one can barely resist joining in.


New York Post
02/27/2004

New York Times: "A Cozy Little McShtetl"

The most animated presence in the prim, pretty new production of ''Fiddler on the Roof,'' which opened last night at the Minskoff Theater, may well be its title character. No, not the fiddler. The roof.

For David Leveaux's handsomely mounted, antiseptically acted revival of this beloved folk musical, which stars a heartbreakingly uneasy Alfred Molina, the designer Tom Pye has created what looks like a free-floating roof to hover over the set. An attractively weather-worn piece of architecture, this roof moves in mysterious ways, ascending and descending throughout the evening, sometimes to distinguish between interior and exterior scenes, sometimes for no obvious reason. It has a willful personality all its own.

That's more than can be said for the show's performers, a good-looking, lithe-bodied and generally anonymous lot. Portraying Jewish villagers (and a few Cossacks) in a Russian village in 1905, the ensemble members go through their paces of song, dance and Yiddish humor with a bland, dutiful cheer that rarely turns into anything more robust. Should the entertainment enterpreneurs of Branson, Mo., ever come up with a pavilion called Shtetl Land, this is what it would be like.

Even before it opened, this revival of ''Fiddler,'' the show that launched a thousand theater parties when it was first produced on Broadway in 1964, was generating public debate. In an essay in The Los Angeles Times on Feb. 15, when the show was still in previews, the novelist Thane Rosenbaum wrote that Mr. Leveaux's production was marked by ''an absence of Jewish soul.'' By that time a nickname for the revival had already started circulating among theater insiders: ''Goyim on the Roof.'' Being a goy myself, I won't try to assess the Jewish authenticity of this ''Fiddler.'' The theater lover in me, however, is baffled by the production's lack of gusto, earthiness, warmth and -- to use Mr. Rosenbaum's word -- soul of any kind. An aura of enervation starts at the top of the cast, with Mr. Molina's apologetic performance as Tevye the milkman, and penetrates like a paralyzing fog into even the smallest roles.

From watching the show at the Minskoff, it is still possible to understand why ''Fiddler'' became the mammoth hit that it did, racking up 3,242 performances in its original run (starring the inimitable Zero Mostel). It also triumphed as a hit movie musical (starring the Israeli actor Topol), a rarity in the 1970's. The show has been given two full-scale New York revivals, while living on and on in touring and community theater productions the world over.

Under the musical direction of Kevin Stites (with Don Walker's original orchestrations supplemented by Larry Hochman), Jerry Bock's score still registers as a tasty, sticky pudding of corn, syrup, Eastern European inflections and Broadway razzmatazz, with homespun, clunky lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. (Anyone who hears ''If I Were a Rich Man'' or ''Sunrise, Sunset'' is fated to live with these songs in his head until he dies.) And the onstage orchestra sounds swell.

You can also sense the craftsmanship behind Joseph Stein's smartly structured book, adapted from stories by Sholom Aleichem, which depicts the changing world of Tevye; his wife, Golde (Randy Graff); and their daughters in the era of pogroms in pre-revolutionary Russia. The plot combines the domestic appeal of the matchmaking machinations of a Yiddish-style ''Pride and Prejudice'' with an elegy to a picturesque way of life on the edge of extinction.

But as even the big famous set pieces -- first choreographed by Jerome Robbins (also the original director of ''Fiddler'') and re-envisioned here by Jonathan Butterell -- parade before you, they never ignite. Everyone's in the right places, making the right movements. And thanks to Mr. Pye (sets), Vicki Mortimer (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting), everything looks gorgeous, right down to those covetable lanterns that hang overhead and the autumn-leaves-strewn stage, which suddenly tilts forward for a lavish ''Midsummer Night's Dream''-style fantasy sequence.

What's lacking is the human passion and idiosyncrasy that would set fire to all this theatrical tinder. Mr. Leveaux, who scored a hit last season with his Tony-winning revival of ''Nine,'' is an elegant contrarian. Give him a cool, cerebral play by Tom Stoppard (''The Real Thing,'' the Broadway-bound revival of ''Jumpers''), and he finds the warmth, joy and pain at its center. Give him a warm, joy and pain-filled musical like ''Fiddler,'' and he transforms it into something perversely cool.

He has achieved this metamorphosis in large part through dogged miscasting. Mr. Molina is the terrific actor who played Diego Rivera in the movie ''Frida'' and was the best thing about the Broadway production of Yasmina Reza's ''Art.'' But none of his natural charisma or combustibility comes across here. Whether chatting with God, bickering with his wife or dancing at his daughter's wedding, this Tevye does nothing wholeheartedly.

There's a wary restraint about this performance, as if Mr. Molina were afraid he might embarrass himself if he ever cut loose in selling a song or a joke. But then nearly all the cast members deliver their lines and songs as they might have in a cold reading, delivered by seasoned professionals who had yet to add the shading and tics that define original character.

Only John Cariani, as the young schlemiel of a tailor, tries for boldly individual portraiture. But his frantic gestures and stylized slump have a mechanical quality that jolts in this production. As the three eldest of Tevye's daughters, each of whom falls rebelliously in love with an unsuitable man, Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly and Tricia Paoluccio have lovely interchangeable faces and lovely voices. Any of them would be perfect in a more conventional ingénue role, say Liesl in ''The Sound of Music.''

Their suitors are portrayed by the dashing Robert Petkoff, as a revolutionary, and the GQ cover-worthy David Ayers, as a renegade gentile, as well as by the manic Mr. Cariani. Nancy Opel, a last-minute replacement for Barbara Barrie, is an oddly youthful and well-dressed Yente the Matchmaker (a role created by Beatrice Arthur).

Ms. Graff, a popular stalwart of New York theater, has never looked more attractive than she does as the hard-working, scolding, fretting Golde. With her head scarf bringing out her fine bone structure, she suggests a fashion editor who has discovered peasant chic and she sings with sweetness and clarity. A Jewish earth mother, however, she definitely is not.

It's hard to figure out exactly what Mr. Leveaux thought he was up to with this subdued interpretation. Maybe he was just trying to avoid the usual stereotypes and give ''Fiddler'' a more universal appeal. But to make its characters, starting with Tevye, genteel (never mind gentile) folk who avoid self-dramatization is to deprive the show of the zest that makes it spin. In this ''Fiddler,'' when Tevye and his friends break out with the drinking song ''To Life,'' you can only wonder at the absence of the life force they raise their glasses to.


New York Times
02/27/2004

Newsday: "Creatively fiddling with tradition"

The first 20 minutes of "Fiddler on the Roof" will probably throw you off.

Instead of the familiar, fanciful, folkloric Russian village suggesting Marc Chagall, this Anatevka could be down the back road from one of Chekhov's gracious estates. Never have we been so aware that the pre-revolutionary bigotry bearing down on Tevye and his shtetl neighbors is coinciding with the changes tearing the fabric of Chekhov's uneasy society.

In David Leveaux's handsome, intelligent, radically reconceived "Fiddler," which opened last night at the Minskoff Theatre with Alfred Molina as an appealing Tevye, there are even white birch trees – the haunting Chekhovian foliage of choice - to connect the dots between the Jewish and Russian stories in the early 1900s.

Scenery, however, is the least of the differences between this "Fiddler" and the Tevye industry that has been countlessly replicated for 40 years and fortysomething polyglot cast albums. The real difference, as Broadway's own gospel passion has proclaimed since Zero Mostel first started talking to God in 1964, is in the tradition.

So imagine: This is a nontraditional production of a classic about tradition. The casting and intonational subtext don't seem Jewish. Does this matter? In a theater where blacks play white characters and straights can play gay, why can't a beloved adaptation of a Sholom Aleichem story be conceived in a more universal context? "On the other hand ...," as Tevye might say, aren't there enough Jewish actors in New York? Why would anyone cast Tovah Feldshuh as Mother Superior in "The Sound of Music?"

How troubling is the lack of authenticity? Reactions, no doubt, will vary. For us, the disorientation does not last much beyond the initial feeling that actors, not people, are dancing in shtetl drag. Before long, Leveaux, the smart English director of last season's "Nine" and the dazzling upcoming revival of "Jumpers," lures us into Broadway's first reconsideration of Jerome Robbins' template.

This remains one of the last great book musicals of the golden age, written by Joseph Stein as a combination of the sacred and the delightfully everyday the profound and the shamelessly show biz. Jerry Bock's music, with its stirring suggestions of ancient modalities, and Sheldon Harnick's lyrics - "Sunrise, Sunset," "Tradition," the hushed "Anatevka" - still linger in the cultural psyche with the inevitability of myth.

Molina is a comfortable bear of a Tevye, the milkman with five daughters to marry off and the Cossacks around the corner. Where the fabulously eccentric Mostel and his more conventional successors made Tevye a star turn, the English-born, Spanish- Italian actor underplays the histrionics and doesn't hit the jokes. There are no Lower East Side accents in this cast, which is both thoughtful and a relief. Still, when this Tevye sings "If I Were a Rich Man," the biddy-biddy- bum sounds more like a Bing Crosby croon than a playful Talmudic approximation.

Despite a Vicki Mortimer costume that makes him look like a railroad worker, Molina's Tevye is a surprisingly romantic fellow. With the ever-challenging Randy Graff as his Golde, there is a spark of something beyond dutiful parenting between them. The daughters keep reminding us more of "Little Women" than girls named Tzeitel and Shprintze, but we more or less get used to it. Nancy Opel, a late replacement as Yente, the matchmaker, is endearingly annoying. Her new song, "Topsy-Turvy," seems unnecessary but amusing.

Wisely, Leveaux has kept much of Robbins' choreography, the rhythmic chain dances with arms raised in right angles and passions dug deep into the earth. "Tevye's Dream" is unusually trippy, with the lovers, Sally Murphy and John Cariani, hanging in the air and demons crawling from trapdoors.

Finally, we are embraced by Tom Pye's outdoor set, which fills the Minskoff stage as if this weren't one of the least welcoming spaces in the city. Twinkling lanterns, part of Brian MacDevitt's enchanted lighting, are raised over our heads at the beginning. The family's "Sabbath Prayer" is repeated, over and over into the distance, by other village families behind poetic scrims. Kevin Stites' orchestra is onstage - an odd touch, as if shtetl life were a constant party. But this is an especially musical production, so, ultimately, we don't much care where the musicians sit.

And the fiddler, Nick Danielson, is a presence far more than in the original staging and its replications.

He is first lowered into view on a couple of pieces of worn wood, the only literal sign of a house.

There's unintended irony, considering this production, in Tevye's evolving philosophy: "Without our tradition, life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." But the final tableau, as villagers leave for lives unknown, is a shimmering, wistful silhouette. Leveaux has the fiddler pass his violin to a child on the road. We never wondered before what happened to the fiddler. It feels right to hurt for him, too.


Newsday
02/27/2004

USA Today: "'Fiddler' again plays its magic"

In the nearly 40 years since Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway, its songs and images have become as ingrained in Jewish-American culture as bagels and bar mitzvah bashes.

So who knew it would take a couple of nice English goys to revitalize the musical?

As directed by David Leveaux with his fellow Brit Alfred Molina in the leading role of Tevye, the revival of Fiddler(*** out of four) that opened Thursday at the Minskoff Theatre may lack some of the folksy flamboyance that one associates with the original. While I never saw Zero Mostel on stage, his distinctly ethnic intonations and gestures defined Tevye for fans as well as other actors. In comparison, Molina's hearty but decidedly earthbound reading seems muted at first.

But there is a method to Molina's relative mildness, which is in keeping with Leveaux's starkly purposeful approach to this account of a poor Jewish family confronting oppression and changing mores in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Unlike, say, the fundamentally sunny Oklahoma!, last presented on Broadway in an elegant but underwhelming production by British director Trevor Nunn, Fiddler has heartache at its core. Joseph Stein's libretto and the bittersweet songs provided by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick celebrate the human spirit by pointing to the formidable forces that challenge it.

By allowing Molina and his colleagues to give more nuanced, naturalistic performances, without losing sight of their characters' cultural background and quirks, Leveaux reinforces the universality of their suffering and longing. In fact, given the various forms of religious and social intolerance festering around the world, I doubt that Fiddler has ever seemed more relevant than it does in this lively but sobering interpretation.

Not all the cast is up to par. As Yente the Matchmaker, Nancy Opel can be curiously flat, and John Cariani is overzealously nebbish-like as Motel, the shy tailor pursuing Tevye's daughter Tzeitel. But Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly and Tricia Paoluccio, the young actresses cast as Tzeitel and two of her sisters, all look radiant and sing beautifully. And Randy Graff brings a wry, graceful poignancy to Tevye's put-upon but devoted wife.

This Fiddler draws power equally from what is neither spoken nor sung: the old-world flavor and timeless emotional pull of Jerome Robbins' original choreography and the weight of history bearing down on the story.

In the final scene. we see Tevye’s family and other villagers who have been driven from their homes, their silhouettes seeming at once burdened and larger-than-life as they march on to confront new trials and embrace new dreams.

It's a tribute to Leveaux, Molina and the melting pot of talented individuals in the cast and crew that their plight will touch anyone with an open heart and mind.


USA Today
02/27/2004

Variety: "Fiddler on the Roof"

The real revolutionary in Broadway's new revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" isn't feisty little Perchik, the firebrand sent off to Siberia. It's Alfred Molina's sad-eyed, soft-spoken Tevye, a modest, human presence trying to fend off both the czar's minions and the ghosts of Broadway legends past in David Leveaux's somber but eloquent new production.

It takes courage to tinker with a musical as beloved as "Fiddler on the Roof." A robust success (3,000-plus performances for the original production, frequent revivals, dinner theater 'til you could plotz), the show was an unlikely proposition, and it remains a delicately calibrated mixture of light and dark.

It's mind-boggling to imagine the nervous huddlings of its creators: "What do we do for an act-one finale?" "I've got it! A pogrom!" Playing it safe, previous Broadway revivals have been facsimiles of the original, which sugarcoated the gloomy realities of turn-of-the-century shtetl life in Russia with doses of musical-comedy merriment.

Leveaux and his collaborators have chosen to downplay the musical's more broad comedy, accenting naturalism and the gentle story at its core, of tradition evolving and adapting and individuals rebelling against repressive cultural dictates. Of course, Sholom Aleichem wasn't the only Russian writer concerned with the struggle for self-fulfillment and insular societies on the brink of change. Those are notable themes in Chekhov's plays, too, and Leveaux has clearly looked to the Russian master for inspiration here.

The Chekhovian mood is established at the outset by Tom Pye's handsome, wintry set design, which surrounds a worn wooden central playing space with a stand of denuded birch trees, their leaves forming a multicolored carpet. Brian MacDevitt's lighting rarely strays from the gas-lit hues established in the early scenes -- sunshine is a rarity here.

This spare design accentuates the vulnerability of the shtetl dwellers -- rough-hewn furniture and a dilapidated ceiling that descends for indoor scenes are the only real set pieces. As the musical progresses, our sense of the characters' exposure only grows: The scrims surrounding the stage are drawn back in the second act, giving way to a series of gray skyscapes. The musical ends with a bleak, searing image as the denizens of Anatevka take to the road, becoming archetypal symbols of the Jewish Diaspora.

How do the vaudevillian gags of Joseph Stein's book hold up in this austere environment? Better than might be expected. The absence of an orchestra pit (the musicians are seated in a corner of the stage) brings the characters into the audience's lap, allowing the performers to tone down the shtickier aspects of the writing. (The model here seems to be Norman Jewison's marvelous movie version.) But if the performers ease up on the stereotypical inflections we associate with this kind of humor, the jokes still land: At intermission, a pre-teen girl was still giddily recalling the hilarity of the confused negotiations for Tzeitel's hand -- you know, when Tevye thinks they're talking about a cow: "Today you want one! Tomorrow you may want two!"

The production already has drawn criticism for being ethnically incorrect -- a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece suggested it might not be "Jewish enough." But the material itself has scarcely been touched, and to suggest that Stein's book and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's score could somehow be de-Semiticized is to denigrate the careful way in which they artfully integrated the sounds and spirit of the culture they were depicting into the rigid framework of popular musical comedy. The musical's vision of shtetl life was always ersatz, softened for consumption by Broadway audiences, and its creators never pretended otherwise.

Jerome Robbins' magnificent choreography has been retained, and it's a measure of the production's essential fidelity to the spirit of the original that it blends so seamlessly into Leveaux's staging. Robbins himself pared away much of the more stylized, Broadway-ballet dancing in the show as it moved to New York, recognizing that the show required an authenticity better expressed in the earthbound, communal dances that remain, most spectacularly the bottle dance at Tzeitel's wedding, performed with exhilarating brio here. "The Dream" is vividly staged in a two-dimensional plane as a Chagall painting come to life -- a gracious nod to the original production design.

The performances are clear, unforced and often lovely. Tevye's eldest daughter, Tzeitel, is played by Sally Murphy with a slight gawkiness to match that of her quivering wreck of a fiance, Motel. As that cowed but determined tailor, John Cariani provides the evening's only exuberantly laugh-grabbing turn, and he is warmly applauded for it.

It could reasonably be argued that a fine -- and more ethnically appropriate -- homegrown alternative to Laura Michelle Kelly (London's upcoming Mary Poppins -- go figure!) could have been found to undertake the role of Hodel, but Kelly gives a spirited, beautifully sung performance. Tricia Paoluccio and David Ayers are appealing as the youngsters loving across the religious divide, and Robert Petkoff makes a fine impression as the incubating revolutionary.

Nancy Opel, as the outmatched matchmaker Yente, is precise and funny without being overbearing in this decorative comic role. Bock and Harnick recently renewed their collaboration to provide a new song for Yente, a comic complaint about the world going to hell, "Topsy-Turvy." It serves to enliven the generally solemn tone of the second act, and also redresses, at least slightly, the musical imbalance in the show (all the ensemble songs, save the mournful farewell "Anatevka," are in the first act).

Randy Graff is adequate but a trifle bland as Tevye's wife, Golde. A more intimate staging for Tevye and Golde's touching second-act duet, "Do You Love Me?," would give more shape to their relationship. (This is one of the few instances in which the production's wide-open staging works against the material.)

The only aspect of the production that could sensibly arouse controversy is Molina's performance as Tevye.

The role was famously created by Zero Mostel, who was handpicked by Robbins despite the enmity between them due to the director's cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins must have felt the show needed Mostel's exuberant, even vulgar presence at its center -- a personification of the life force that endures despite the ravaging forces of time, change, oppression.

But such a performance would not be in keeping with the restrained palette of Leveaux's staging. Accordingly, Molina's Tevye is not a Jewish superman but an Everyman. His performance takes its cue from Tevye's rationality, his careful weighing of all the alternatives -- Molina doesn't turn Tevye's shilly-shallying "on the other hand..." into the recurring joke it presumably was in Mostel's hands.

A Chekhovian air of defeat haunts Molina's Tevye from the beginning: By the time he finishes singing the exuberant "If I Were a Rich Man," Molina's Tevye is disgusted and a little embarrassed at his idle daydreaming -- he tosses in a defeated little "oy" before the last bars. It's a respectable, intelligent performance, but it lacks stage-filling scope.

Absent the bravura theatricality, we want at least a communicated profundity of feeling, or a starker contrast between Tevye's tough exterior and his soft pudding heart. Neither is forcefully felt here.

But it's not a crippling liability, by any means. Even presented in a more reflective manner, the musical is as sturdy and indomitable as Tevye himself -- its journey is far from complete.


Variety
02/26/2004

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